Monday, June 23, 2014

Men are from Pluto

A colleague and I were talking about this and that recently and he said that at some point he needs to find a new research topic, as the one that he has been working on (very successfully, and in fact sort-of pioneered) is getting very crowded. It's not as much fun (says him) to be in a crowd instead of way out ahead.

So then he said that it was difficult to start working on a very-different topic because it can be difficult to get funding if you lack a track-record and expertise in that new thing. True enough. So I said, "Collaborate" (unsaid but well known: That's what I do).

He said, "No, you can't project authority if you collaborate."


Context: We are both full professors and therefore getting adequate credit for our work is not a career life-or-death issue as it is for early-career scientists. For the early-careerers, this can be important (depending on your particular context). Collaboration can still be a significant research component -- enjoyable and rewarding in many cases* -- as long as you also stand out from the crowd in some way for your ideas and expertise.

But other than that, who cares about projecting authority? OK, some people do. My colleague clearly does, and he is very good at it (projecting authority). I don't really care. Well, I do a bit (I don't like being overlooked), but I don't think collaborating has lessened my "authority". If anything, it has increased it.

I reject as a general philosophy the idea that collaborating de-authoritizes you (I just made that word up), although if that's what floats your boat, go ahead and enjoy your authority (alone).

* if your colleagues are not jerks, and if they don't hold up manuscripts and proposals.


Unknown said...

That's among the most idiotic things I've ever heard. One of the things that convinces me that STEM desperately needs more women is the psychotic, poisonous obsession men have with status and hierarchy. It's even sadder when you realize that this is the message that's being sent to the graduate students. Can't they see how bad that sort of attitude is for the field?

xykademiqz said...

if your colleagues are not jerks, and if they don't hold up manuscripts and proposals.

And therein lies the rub, for me (well, 70% of it anyway). It is very hard to collaborate, for me, when the joint work is not as important to the other person as it is to me, or that person has considerably different timescales for completion of stuff, or they simply have different priorities.

The other 30% of the rub, for me, is that most of my collaborators (experimentalist men) expect that they will be the boss, and I (theorist & woman) am there on their beck and call.

It is very hard to find a collaborator who treats you as an equal and also has a similar work style as you.

On a semi-related note, women are always presumed incompetent until proven otherwise; that's why a woman in a new field better have collaborations (and not just a ton of preliminary work and/or published papers) before getting funded for new stuff, 'cause they cannot be trusted to do this new work without a chaperone. (Also, as a theorist, I am always required to show letters of experimentalist support, because who know what the crazy theorists can go off and do if not tethered to the ground by the wise experimentalist.)
Last but not least, the communal versus agentic stereotypes for women and men, respectively: women are expected to collaborate, be a team player, not project authority (in contrast to men). So it seems to me that FSP's colleague and FSP are both perhaps unconsciously doing exactly what they are "supposed to" be doing as a senior man and a senior woman in science -- ain't patriarchy grand?

Anonymous said...

In my field collaboration is the norm. In fact during a recent hiring round we were left wondering about an applicant who had very few collaborations. Does he play well with others was the nagging question in the room.

Not all fields are equal, so I can see that this might be different for other areas, but I think there is a clear trend across the sciences to assemble progressively larger teams that off a given problem by pooling together their respective areas of expertise.

Funny Researcher said...

How is he going to do good science if he does not collaborate?

Science demands collaboration more than ever since you cannot be an expert in all dimensions of your research agenda, especially in interdisciplinary science

PhysioProffe said...

Well, I think there is a kernel of truth in what he is saying: If you are going to contribute pioneering ideas to a new field, you do want to get credit for the pioneering ideas, and not be thought of as just having helped your collaborator who is already in the field with implementation. The way that I have handled this in several cases of my own is to have one of my own students or post-docs learn what we need to know technically from the collaborator's lab, but then for us to design the experiments ourselves and perform them mostly in my lab (although sometimes using specialized equipment in the collaborator's lab). This way, my student or post-doc is definitely the first author of paper(s) that result, and I am definitely the senior and corresponding author.

There is nothing idiotic about wanting to receive due credit for one's scientific ideas.

Anonymous said...

I really can't worry too much about conveying authority since it will never happen anyways. I have students constantly surprised that I'm a "real" professor and occasionally get e-mails from collaborators which I have to return with a note "I'm sorry I believe you've forgotten I am not your grad student and in fact that I secured the money for this whole project, care to rewrite this?". So I focus on getting the science done and making sure my name and my trainees names are where they should be - the rest is simply too much to worry about.

Strung out cyclist said...

Collaborate? What's that? (This is why I'm not a scientist any more) As to "projecting authority," this is the double bind faced by all scientists. If you want your work to be taken seriously, you have to be confident about it, but if you're genuinely researching something new, it stands to reason that you have no idea (or at least not a very good idea) what you're doing.

Anonymous said...

I'm male, fairly senior, and I decided a couple of years ago to do only collaborations on which I'm not the "principal" partner. No more grant writing.

Of course, this limits me somewhat—I can't hire grad students, and I'm taking on more teaching and administration in the department.

But getting rid of the time sink and soul suck of grant writing is definitely worth it. (I'm now working on a book, instead of unfunded grant proposals.)

Anonymous said...

If a male commenter made a statement about women as categorical as that of the first commenter, wouldn't that be considered sexist? There are plenty of women that are obsessed with status and hierarchy.

Female Computer Scientist said...

When I want to switch to a new area, I just start doing work and publishing in the new area. Then after I've gained a little credibility in the new area I apply for funding. (I guess this is easier as a computer scientist as opposed to a natural scientist, as our research is less expensive.)

I project about as much authority as a field mouse, but I do get excited about my ideas and try to get others excited about them. When there's a good fit and it makes sense, I collaborate. If not, I go it alone. I suspect even if I had 50 lone PI grants I would still not be seen to "project authority".

Perhaps I am still secretly buying into the meritocracy-myth of science, but I can't fathom not exploring a promising new idea because of fear of not being seen as an authoritative figure. Isn't that just a disguised fear of rejection?

EliRabett said...

"Men are from Pluto"

Give thanks, they spend most of their life commuting.


Anonymous said...

Yikes! What a horrible comment. I guess I"m the "typical" female because projecting authority is not the reason I do this work. I feel that if I do solid work, it will stand on its own merits - and so far it has. Based on what I've done, I am well known as an expert in my fields.

I also happily collaborating in new fields all the time. I bring "my" special viewpoint and skills and the results are always better than they would have been without me. Even if I don't always get the recognition I wish I had, it isn't a reason to stay "safely" doing the same thing. I personally think your colleague is scared to try new things and he is using this as an excuse.

Anonymous said...

Your male colleague is just showing how extremely insecure he is. No matter how "successful" he is, I feel sorry for him actully, that he is willing to stagnate because of his fear and insecurity.

Anonymous said...

I am full professor at a research intensive University in Canada.

My career trajectory was:

PhD: Take an idea floated in the literature for a few years and make it work in practice.

PDF: COLLABORATE to extend this work to new areas.

Asst. Prof.: Put this new methodology on a firm theoretical foundation.
- Notice the area is now getting crowded and identify areas where "my" method is being used simply because it can rather than because it should . COLLABORATE with experts in related areas to find/build more appropriate method.

Full Prof (skipped Assoc.): Rinse, repeat.

I have always used collaborations as a way to get into new areas and then put my stamp on them.

As a young researcher I was fearless and not worried about "lack of authority", I just wanted to do awesome science.

Now I bring authority to projects simply through my record of "transformative" research. Being worried about how you appear to your colleagues is not the way to do one's best work.

My career has been unusual but I would never suggest to any mentee to avoid working with and learning from others simply to appear "authoritative". I have been called condescending, arrogant and worse but even I know that I can learn something from everyone I work with.

Your colleague is insecure and afraid. You have better things, like writing blogposts and playing with your cat, than worrying about him.

ps - This blog is a fantastic resource! Many of my students have forwarded it on to me in the past. It is my loss to have never read it before today.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Henning @6/23/2014 02:33:00 AM:

This is a sexist comment. No different from men thinking or saying women are, as a group, anything at all.

The response "I didn't mean ALL men, obviously" means as much from you as it does from all the men who have "apologized" that way.


Obsessed with treating all people, even women, as individuals.

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to think collaboration is a bad idea. I have been doing it rather successfully, only to find that my male collaborators get the credit for my ideas and work. I think your colleague may, in fact, be correct.

Anonymous said...

Collaboration seems to be the key. I'm currently writing a proposal to do a field study, which is all new territory to me. I've got great collaborators to help fill in my knowledge gaps, and they all seem happy to work with me. I don't think it affects my authority at all (I'm the only woman on the team). The way I envision it, I'll be first author on most, if not all, of the papers that come out of it. I'll give the conference talks.

I tend to work on my own ideas, rather than for somebody else. This may be a failing of mine, but people know who I am and regard my work as mine. They may not agree with the work, and maybe they quietly think I'm an idiot, but nobody questions my authority over my own work.